Two countries, one struggle

At some level, whether one lives in Romania or Poland, the fault lines are similar these days. Societies are divided. Almost everyone feels betrayed by the political class. Nationalism, racism and xenophobia are spreading like wildfire.

Author Silar Wikimedia Commons

I moved to Poland four years ago (love, recklessness). Over the last month, I was able to complete the research for an article in Polish for the first time. I spoke to farmers affected by a coal mining operation, to various ministries, and even questioned the mining company director, drilling him in my imperfect Polish. At the end of the interview with the company director, I was happy; I had gotten everything I wanted from the discussion.

It will likely take me another four years to write my articles in Polish. I’ll be in my late 30s by then. Quite late for having a voice in the country one lives in, but I am slowly accepting that.

Mentally, I am still partially in Romania. Right around the time I moved to Poland, the things I had always wanted to see happening in my country, had started to happen.

In 2013, huge protests erupted, and were successful in saving the village of Rosia Montana from being destroyed by a gold mining project. From then onwards, a segment of Romanian society remained politically active, closely watching political developments and sanctioning those in power for committing abuses – or at least trying.

Romanian media, which was clinically dead when I left, began its resurrection. Independent, investigative journalistic projects, which have so much impact on peoples’ lives, began appearing.

I want to be an actor in the changes there, but I prioritize my family life, so I have stayed in Poland. I fly in for the big protests and write about the events in Romania, following what happens as closely as I can. I bizarrely feel myself a part of the group of activists who’ve struggled for positive changes. I hear about them and they hear about me, we connect on Facebook, and discuss online, and eventually when we meet for coffee in Bucharest on my trips to see family, we feel like old friends. I imagine myself a satellite of the movement.

A Romanian in Warsaw

It’s not a great time to be a foreigner in Poland. One of the main tenants on which the current Law and Justice (PiS) government built its popular support, is nationalism. The government advances more and more Polish supremacism in education, culture and the media. We’ll see the results of this indoctrination over time, but I worry about my daughter growing up in this climate.

Those on the far-right, already strong in Poland, have felt more entitled to express their views and act on them ever since this government took office. The shopkeeper at the nearby Żabka wears a Celtic cross t-shirt (I do my best to speak flawless Polish). My dark-skinned Romanian friend is intimidated by the Polish youth on the bus. On the train bringing me back to Warsaw from a village, Legia Warszawa fans sing “Romanians, Romanians, no matter how much you wash, no matter how much perfume you put on, you still stink.” The Polish Ombudsman says he gets a complaints of racist incidents at least once a fortnight.

The Polish government just passed an anti-terror law which makes all foreigners potential terrorists. Without a court order, I can be randomly fingerprinted and filmed on the street, my emails can be checked and my phones tapped. This is a breach of my rights as a European citizen, but my government and embassy have done nothing to prevent it, despite receiving information about the new law in advance.

Divided societies

Like Romania, Poland fucked up after 1989. Successive governments adopted policies that benefited only part of the population: the richer, the more educated, the better positioned to take advantage of the new opportunities available. We know today that many were left out of the Polish success story. Today they feel betrayed and vulnerable, and PiS has been there to protect them with nationalist discourse and securitization policies (fake, dangerous “protection,” at best) and with social policies like money transfers to large families, and a more affordable housing program in the works (real help, actually).

Interestingly enough – and partly because PiS is in power – Polish society today is bubbling with political activism.

An impressive movement to defend democracy from the PiS government’s abuses was born soon after they took their first steps to kill off the Constitutional Court. A mass movement, the Committee to Defend Democracy (KOD), comprised of middle class professionals who have found new meaning in political activity, was activated. They now meet in local clubs, educate themselves and demonstrate, dedicating their efforts to the future of the country. They are not concerned much with those in poverty, but perhaps they’ll get there.

A new left-wing party, Razem, has now appeared on the political scene and even did well enough in the last parliamentary elections to get state party funding. NGO and citizen initiatives are growing.

This is why it’s really interesting to live in Poland these days. Beyond the doom and gloom of yet another anti-democratic measure adopted by PiS, grassroots movements are fermenting. I try to follow what they are doing, and how their thinking is evolving in those local clubs and volunteer-organized public debates. Poles are practicing democracy and it’s fascinating.

At some level, whether one lives in Romania or Poland, Austria or the UK, the fault lines are similar these days. The battles the same. Societies divided. Large portions of the population economically marginalized. Almost everyone feels betrayed by the political class. Nationalism, racism and xenophobia are spreading like wildfire, with enormous costs. The Europe we know has been severely shaken up, maybe even definitively broken.

Convincing models of democratic and just societies are needed now more than ever. In this respect, it matters little whether I am in Romania or Poland. We all need to work together on this anyway.

Claudia Ciobanu

Claudia Ciobanu

is a Warsaw-based freelance journalist writing about Central and Eastern Europe whose articles have appeared on Reuters, The Guardian or al-Jazeera.